The Famished Road by Ben Okri

brushing off the dustEvery Friday, in Brushing off the Dust, I revisit one of the many older book reviews written before I founded this blog. Here, I try to prioritise those titles that have really stayed with with me, or which have shaped the course of my subsequent reading adventures in a significant way.

The Famished Road

First published: 1991 (Vintage paperback edition 1992)
My copy: borrowed from the Library where I work
First read and reviewed by me: November 2009

Memorable quote: “”So long as we are alive, so long as we feel, so long as we love, everything in us is an energy we can use.”

Thoughts:
Of all the books I’ve read in recent years, this one has taken the longest and has been the biggest struggle to get through. But it’s also probably the one that’s going to stay with me for the longest time because this rich slice of African magic realism is 500 pages of writing that only just falls prose side of poetry and it transported me to a place and a mindset quite unlike anything else I’ve experienced. Winner of the 1991 Booker Prize (and I can see why), The Famished Road and tells the story of Azaro, an “abiku” or spirit-child (that is, a spirit born in human form who is destined to die young and return to the spirit world, only to be reborn elsewhere) who has chosen instead to flaunt this cycle remain as the son of the Nigerian couple to whom he is born at the start of the novel. It is not an easy decision. Azaro’s life is one of crushing poverty as well violent political turmoil – as the equally hypocritical “Party of the Rich” and “Party of the Poor” vie against each other for votes – and on top of this he is rarely untroubled by the spirit companions who disapprove of his decision to live and are constantly trying to lure him back to their world. Indeed, Azaro and his narrative move freely between the world of the living and the world of the spirits; throughout the book the mundane and heartbreaking realities of life in a poor West African village are interwoven with visionary, dreamlike sequences which could be the hallucinatory result of Azaro’s perpetual hunger, or could be a spiritual reality. 

It’s a brilliant concept and an engaging story but it still took me a long while to finish. Partly this is because of the density and richness of the imagery: rather like eating a particularly rich multi-layered dessert, delicious but you can’t consume too much in one go without feeling glutted and ill. The narrative style is also quite challenging: as a child narrator, and an abiku child at that, Azaro has a very different mind and set of priorities from his typical Westernised reader. Many incidents that would seem quite mundane to us – such as the switching on of an electric bulb – take on, through Azaro’s eyes, an almost religious significance. By contrast, because he dwells in a partially supernatural setting, Azaro takes spiritual experiences in his stride and often narrates the most strange and wonderful sections of his story in the briefest and most casual manner. Taken together, these two factors make for an utterly persuasive character study but also for quite a challenging read and I often found I had to revisit a paragraph several times fully to make sense of it.

So this is not a good casual reading choice but for those willing to work at it and stick with it, The Famished Road is a surprising and wonderful book. As you’d expect, given the setting, it’s a very bleak novel in many ways with frequent descriptions of suffering and horror but there are moments of wonderfully warm humour and hope here too and above all, Okri’s novel is a celebration of love. It is the perceptible love in the eyes of his mother that first persuades the newborn abiku to stay in his human form and it is love that gives his family hope and the will to persevere even in the face of unimaginable pain. The novel’s thinly veiled political allegory is a vision of Azaro as Nigeria as itself: “Our country is an abiku country. Like the spirit-child, it keeps coming and going. One day it will decide to remain. It will become strong.” But the novel ends on a very sobering note that suggests just how far this hope is from fulfilment. So it is a testament to the overall power of the preceding text that I still closed the final page feeling strangely uplifted.

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